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Monday, June 1, 2009

Found Items

71st Annual Commencement Program
Natchez Institute, 1916

Double click on the photo to view closeup

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Matters Familia - Ephemera

As some of you may already know, I have a little online bookstore. I'm forever venturing out to libraries, Goodwill and Salvation Army stores looking for books to sell on my site, Bambooks Booksellers. When I first started doing this, I was stunned at the inscriptions and the objects I would find inside books -- ephemera, as it's called -- and how moving it often was.

One day I came across a book written by a mother about her son's suicide. I opened the book and a piece of folded paper fell out. On the outside, written in a child's scrawled hand, was this: "To all the Momis [sic]..."

I opened it up. Inside, was a picture of a sad face (like a happy face with the smile turned down). Next to it, "To all the momis. I'm sorry."

I feel certain it was a suicide note, and wondered if the family who gave all their loved one's books away knew the note was inside before releasing it to the world.

Another time I picked up a book to list it on the computer when I discovered a piece of notepaper stuck inside. The name of the book was
Stone Alone: the Story of a Rock-and-Roll Band by Bill Wyman and Ray Coleman. It is, of course, about the Rolling Stones.

I often get a mental image of the kind of person who reads a certain kind of book. So I'm looking at this book on the Rolling Stones and I'm thinking it's probably someone about my age and into Rock-and-Roll. Someone who sowed their wild oats during the '60's or '70's. Someone who's laid back, relaxed, probably divorced by now, contemplating a hair transplant and a neck lift, and is wondering if that cute chick he laid at Woodstock is an insurance broker now.

Then I pull out a piece of notepaper. In carefully scripted cursive writing is the following:

When one seeks refuge
in a miracle, perhaps
it is that they are not
reminded that God has
so inundated this great
accident of life with
them; that it is perhaps
impossible to fit another
one in. Hence, it is only
a matter of reminding the
seeker of where they
might be found. And, as
common as they seem - they
are not without the
provision of God.

It sounded like the writings of someone with a terminal illness who'd had an epiphany and realized that the miracle they hoped to find is, perhaps, not the miracle they need. That perhaps their small life is not as important to the workings of the world as it is to him or her. I tried Googling the poem, and found nothing, so I assume it's original. That the person who bought the book wrote the poem.

It's really the old books that affect me the most, though. I remember finding a used bookstore one time that was filled to the ceiling with antique books whose owners had died many years before, the inscriptions inside providing clues to their lives, to their hopes, their fears and loves. And I remember becoming overwhelmed with a feeling of loss. I stood there in the stacks and found myself crying. There's just something so sad about lives that are only dust now, remembered by only a few and growing fewer every year.

I was reminded of these discoveries while going through Annet's house yesterday and finding the ephemera, if you will, of my predecessors.

My great, great grandmother, Anna Snyder from Alton, Illinois, was a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. I've always heard the story that after the Civil War, she was abandoned by her husband. Destitute, she came to Natchez to be near family, clutching little more than her uncle's naval commission, signed by Lincoln, and a personal, handwritten invitation that Lincoln had sent to her for his inauguration. Being one of those rare people who was a celebrity in his own time, she knew that those signatures had more than sentimental value. If need be, she could get money for them.

We still have the naval commission, signed by both Lincoln and the secretary of the navy, Gideon Welles. But the invitation was lost. Annet used to say that Nana was a terrible housekeeper, and throughout all my searches, I had hoped to find it tucked away in a book or trunk tucked into the attic of the house. Alas, I've been through pretty much everything now, and the invitation has not materialized. I climbed into the attic to see what was there, but found that racoons had taken up residence therein and turned everything up there into confetti. If it was there, it's not there now.

But I did find something interesting. During the Civil War, Nana had permission to cross the Union lines. The story goes that she was good at a card game called "Whist," and was allowed to go back and forth to play whist with the officers. So when I came across an envelope on which Annet had written, "Nana's things," my heart skipped a beat.

Rather than the elusive Lincoln invitation, I found the Union pass allowing her passage back and forth. Written on the pass was her hair color (fair), her place of residence (Alton, Illinois), and "peculiarities," on which was written, "Good dance partner." Ha! (photo above) I also found a lock of her hair, the same color as mine. I'm the only one in my family with blonde hair, and had always wondered where it came from.

And yesterday, when I went through the last closet in the house, I found her marriage license, dated 1865, and signed by all who witnessed the ceremony.

Oh! I almost forgot. I think I found the ottoman spoken of in the newspaper article. I'll take some pictures and post them later.

But the most touching thing I found was a tiny little diary that had belonged to my grandfather. Grandaddy was a sweet, gentle, quiet man -- Annet's brother. I knew him as a patient man who seemed to have an aura of quiet sadness about him. For all the years I knew him, he suffered verbal abuse at the hand of Bessie Rose, his wife. She railed at him constantly, berating him for whatever struck her fancy, and he, quiet as always, simply endured it without comment.

Bessie Rose and her sister, Katherine Miller, were well known for meanness. I remember a conversation I had about them with Catherine Meng, who used to receive at Hope Farm for my aunt Katherine. Mrs. Miller had reduced her to tears one day when she upbraided her in front of a group of tourists about how she had delivered her spiel. And on another day, she'd greeted her at the door with, "Why, Catherine, what on earth convinced you to wear that color yellow? It's horrible." Or something to that effect.

Bessie Rose did the same type of thing, not only to me, but to others, as well. She lost several good friends because of it, but never stopped her behavior. Mrs. Meng told me that she thought maybe Bessie Rose was jealous of the attention her sister got for her efforts with the Pilgrimage, and I think she's right.

"The more attention Katherine got," recalled Mrs. Meng, "the meaner Bessie Rose became."

Many of my grandmother's friends lived in antebellum houses passed down through the generations. Grandaddy, however, was an insurance salesman, and although they lived comfortably, never lit the world on fire financially. She would bully their friends to buy insurance from him and berate him for not doing the same. Toward the end of his life, he told my father that she'd told him he was never a good provider.

"That's a tough thing to take at this point in my life," he muttered. "A tough thing."

It would be fair to say that my grandfather lived Thoreau's life of "quiet desperation." So, when I opened the little diary and found that my grandfather had had another love before his marriage to Bessie Rose, I was delighted to see a playful, happy side to him that I had never seen before.

The diary begins on January 1, 1919, when he was 21 years old and working at a bank in town. Every entry in the diary refers to a woman named Kate, who apparently lived in another town and with whom he was completely besotted. Tucked into a pocket in the front of the diary was a little calling card: "Miss Kate Doniphan Prichard"

I sat down and read every entry out loud to Sherry, who was helping me clean the house:

"I took an eight-mile hike in the morning - wrote to Kate in the evening. A full day!"

"2 a.m. up and off for a hunt. Had a three hours' row. Broke the stock of my gun and killed one goose. The day was very cold -- ground frozen. Wrote to Kate."

"Had a busy day. Collections took a lot of time & I only made two. Am gaining speed on the machine. off at 9:10 p.m.. No letter from Kate."

"Got my balance off early today but statements kept me till 6:30. Went down to the river & arranged for a boat for Sunday. Spent remainder of evening at home. No mail."

"Still no mail from Kate. Am getting worried. Finished work and wrote to Kate and went home."

"Got up at 1 a.m. Had a five-hour row. Percy [Benoist] and I hunted all day & never shot at a goose. Came home and wrote to Kate."

"Got a letter from Kate and read it three times, as usual. Wrote to her and now I am going to read hers again. Good night!"

"Just finished a rather interesting serial in Harper's. It furnished much food for thought. I can't decide whether it was disappointing or not. Wrote to the sweetest girl on earth -- alias Kate."

Remembering my sweet, kind granfather, I got a lump in my throat. My eyes welled up and tears started to fall. I had to stop and pause several times before going on. I think I scared Sherry half to death.

"This whole week will be heavy. Today was fairly so but watch tomorrow and Wednesday (underlined) I had another date this evening. Good-night, Kate dear. I am going to write you tomorrow."

"Rode around with Percy a little this morning & we went rowing this afternoon. Got a special delivery from Kate (underlined with a little arrow here pointing at Kate) and {red ink}. Wrote to her."

"Another letter from Kate. She is treating me splendidly. Wrote to Kate."

"Wrote to Kate this evening. Kate dear, I have been more lonely for you than ever today. I tried to tell you all about it in my letter. I am more in love than ever, dear."

At one point, he frets because he's done something to upset Kate, and he promises never to put her in a bad humor again. From the looks of things, though, he was more infatuated with Kate than she was with him. The diary stops on January 17 with nothing particularly notable. I guess he just petered out, as I did with my own diary attempts when I was young.

When I got home, I called my father.

"Who's Kate?"

"That was Kate Don Brandon," he replied, "Mary Ann Jones's mother. Her maiden name was Prichard, like ours but spelled differently. We'd always heard they had a thing for each other."

I called Mrs. Jones.

"Yes," she recalled. "We'd always heard there was a thing with them, and now we've got proof!"

Mrs. Jones mused that her mother was probably away at school at Newcomb at the time. Grandaddy was 21 years old. He married Bessie Rose in 1924, five years after the last entry in the diary.

Kate Don and he had both spent their lives in Natchez, married to other people. I wonder now if the flame he carried for her was ever truly extinquished. Did he love her from afar? Was she a reminder that life could hold better possibilities? If so, he never said anything to anyone, and never showed an inappropriate emotion.

A wonderful but bittersweet discovery in the leavings of the house on the bluff.